Something They Could Have Been
Time is totally different for you in here.
“If you could start all over, how would you do it? How would you raise the children?” When Werner Herzog poses this question in Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, Delbert Burkett pauses before he answers. In prison in Texas, serving a 40-year sentence for eight felony counts (“That’s pretty serious,” notes Herzog from off screen, as he remains throughout the film), Delbert begins, “Well, it’s hard to answer something you’ve never done.”
He goes on, his sentences stopping and starting, his voice scratchy, his face obscured by the glass and wire that make up the prison visiting area barriers. And then he finds a moment when his life looked better, when he was at the University of Texas on a football scholarship in 1973. “I quit school in my senior year,” he says, “And I wished I could go back to right there.” Herzog helps: “Yes, go back to right there, now you have the children.” Yeah, Delbert says, “I would have done everything in my power to help them finish school like I didn’t. I always tell ‘em, ‘Don’t be like me.’ I wished I would have been something they could have been.”
Delbert’s struggle to describe what he’s never done underlines his frustration and incomprehension, his feelings of “failure as a father.” In fact, he’s appearing in the film as the father of Jason, also in prison, for his part in the 2001 murder of 50-year-old Sandra Stotler in her kitchen in Lake Conroe, north of Houston. At the time, both Jason and his friend Michael Perry were teenagers. During his interview with Herzog, Jason recalls very little about Stotler’s murder, or the murders of her 16-year-old son Adam and his friend, 18-year-old Jeremy Richardson, committed on the same night. “There was a wild hot pursuit, and you were in this wild chase,” says Herzog, “Did you actually open fire at them? Or, I don’t want to be too indiscreet…” Jason puts his hand up to quell Herzog’s concerns. “I can tell you,” Jason says, because “I pled guilty, I’ve got 10 years done on a 15-year sentence.” In the telling, however, he suggests that he’s not actually guilty, but rather, was along for a ride with Michael Perry that went very wrong. (His Melyssa Thompson-Burkett, who met and married Jason after he went to prison, makes this same claim later in the film: “I’ve asked Jason multiple times,” she assures Herzog. “I believe him.”)
“I remember getting woke up and getting shot, in the car,” Jason says. “And I went to flee. And everybody says, ‘You shouldn’t have ran, you shouldn’t have ran.’ I had just been shot, and the only way not to get shot again, was to get out of there.” He and Perry did make it to a bathroom in a gas station, a scene the film shows by way of police video, panning over stall doors splattered with blood and bullet holes, as Herzog invites Jason to say more: “You dealt with it like real tough men,” says the filmmaker. “I remember reading somewhere that Michael Perry said, ‘This is it, put the balls at the walls,’ or something like that.” Herzog’s phrasing—getting the American slang wrong—helps to make clear the lunacy of this past moment, as well as its construction by media and cultural influences. The boys learned to be “real tough men” by following the bad examples of TV, their dads and neighbors, and each other.
As Jason speaks, the camera holds steady, as it does for most interviews in Into the Abyss. Jason’s vague recall of that night is matched by that of Michael Perry, 28 at the time Herzog speaks with him, just eight days out from his execution on 1 July 2010. Where Jason Burkett maintains, “I wasn’t thinking clearly, I didn’t know about a murder,” Perry suggests that it was Jason who shot all three victims. Michael looks incredibly young, smiling as he reassures Herzog, “You know, I’m a Christian, so I believe paradise awaits.” The camera holds steady on Perry’s face, which fades from eager to perplexed, as Herzog observes, “Destiny, in a way, has dealt you a very bad deck of cards. It does not exonerate you and when I talk to you, it does not necessarily mean that I have to like you, but I respect you and you are a human being and I think human beings should not be executed.” Perry nods: “Right.”
This exchange reminds you that Into the Abyss is a Herzog film as you’ve come to expect, that is, a cultural and philosophical meditation, less interested in facts and answers than in the sorts of questions that shape experience. Thus, while it offers memories by the cop on the scene, Stolter’s daughter Lisa Stotler-Balloun and Jeremy’s brother Charles (who both appear with framed photos of their lost loved one, fighting back tears 10 years later), it also creates discomfort by showing those crime scene videos, grainy and time-stamped, the frame stopping to show unbaked cookie dough on sheets in Stolter’s kitchen, teddy bears alongside numbered evidence markers in her garage.
As the camera pans over documents too, witness statements with phrases highlighted (“This person told me he killed people and stold cars”), you become acutely aware that all of these stories are suspect, that what you’re left to read after a series of crimes like these can’t possibly explain how these lives collided, how these individuals imagined themselves or saw their ends coming or even processed what had happened or what they were told about it afterwards. The cop tells Herzog (who asks about the crimes scene, “Was there mayhem?”), that there was no sign of drug use: “Honestly, they had a car. This lady died for a car that they wanted.” The conviction is not concerned with how they might have come to that point. The film can’t provide answers, but it offers pieces of context.
Into the Abyss‘s focus on the death penalty as the result of these pieces, and also as another piece that will have more effects, is especially disturbing. Along with Perry (who says how difficult it is to imagine himself “on the gurney,” while the film helps you imagine it with repeated shots of the room, the gurney, and the straps), Stotler-Balloun recalls her experience as a witness to Perry’s execution, “He said he forgave us,” she says, astonished at his audacity. “I watched his shirt go up and down,” she says, “I watched it ‘til it stopped.”
Stotler-Balloun’s suggestion that the experience helps her to feel a “great weight lifted,” is contradicted by interviews with death house chaplain Reverend Richard Perez, and a former death house captain, Fred Allen. The first opens the movie, the second comes later, each vividly articulating the horror of the ritual. Perez appears against a backdrop of the cemetery for convicts executed and unclaimed by family: rows and rows of crosses with numbers and no names. When Perez suggests that he likes to go out onto the golf course, put his “phone in the silent mode,” and ponder the preciousness of life, in the animals who show up on the course, Herzog asks for an example. Perez describes squirrels he might hit with his cart, but can spare by hitting the brakes. “I cannot do that with a human being,” he says tearfully, “I cannot stop the process. But I wish I could.”
Allen’s story is even more specific: he’d been on teams for 125 or so executions, he says, and then he was assigned to Karla Faye (he doesn’t even have to say her last name, Ticker,” as she’s famous for being the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War, and also for having her reprieve rejected, in 1998, by then Governor George W. Bush. Allen recalls that he began shaking and sweating (“Why am I shaking?” he remembers asking himself), that he was subsequently haunted by the faces of inmates he’d led to the death chamber. He decided he could no longer perform the job. “Nobody has the right to take another life,” he says” helping to make Herzog’s case. “I don’t care if it’s the law. And it’s so easy to change the law.”
This is the abyss the film shows, the arbitrariness of the death penalty. People are born into poverty and violence by chance, their options are limited by chance, and their fates—as crime victims or victims of the state—are also functions of chance. And as much as any of these individuals might have wished they “would have been something they could have been,” they can not.